by by Nadia Potts
DanceForms Illustrations by Rhonda Ryman
Author Nadia Potts, former National Ballet of Canada principal dancer, was a student of Betty Oliphant's for over a decade. Before her death, Oliphant spent five years recording her unique approach to ballet training in collaboration with Potts. Descriptions of the classes are accompanied by DanceForms figures, which serve to clearly illustrate the exercises. Oliphant's views, observations and insights about teaching are offered along with a collection of captivating photographs.
I tried to implant in my pupils the desire to get things right. I did not believe in imposing discipline on students, but instead encouraged them to impose it on themselves. I also felt that students had to learn what to accept and what to reject. I did not want them to think that my way was the only way and that it could not be changed. Students saw that I was open to outside influences and I always gave a reason for what I taught and for any changes I made. Later, when students were exposed to other views, they were equipped to be selective in their choices.
- Betty Oliphant
At the age of seven I started studying with Miss Oliphant at her studio in Toronto. I immediately liked and responded to her teaching because I felt that I was learning the "real thing" and that I could, by working hard on what she taught me, achieve tangible results.
I loved her dry British sense of humour, her logical approach, and her demand for perfection. I continued studying with her at the National Ballet School of Canada, when it first opened in 1959, until I joined the National Ballet Company seven years later at the age of eighteen. She taught me three to five times a week during those years and gave me an extraordinary foundation on which to build both as a dancer and as a teacher.
Miss Oliphant always spent many hours preparing her classes and wrote them out in her own shorthand. During one of my visits with Betty in the mid-1990s, I asked if she had kept any of her class notes. She promptly went to one of her closets and presented me with over thirty-five notebooks filled with classes dating from 1955-1993.
I spent some time perusing the notebooks and found that the earlier ones were almost impossible to decipher. Together we came to the conclusion that a consecutive series of twenty classes compiled towards the end of Betty's career best represented her teaching.
I then began writing out the classes and meeting with Betty to interview her. During the last several years of her life, we met on a regular basis and went over every exercise in detail. As we were reviewing the classes she would often stop to discuss a technical point, make a comment about an exercise, offer a general pedagogical viewpoint, or tell a story. Betty's insightful comments and material from the interviews introduce each exercise and class in this book.
I have a real respect for Cecchetti because his work is so logical. There has never been such a teacher. He worked with so many of the great dancers, Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Marie Rambert and Ninette de Valois. He taught in Russia for twelve years and was Pavlova's sole teacher for two years. The most important thing that I learnt from the Cecchetti method was that it was not necessary for all exercises to be pleasant. Many of the exercises, especially the adage, were very difficult and frustrating and taught me how to develop strength in students.
My goal has been to create a way to document Betty's classes so that they can be easily understood by dance teachers from diverse backgrounds. Shortly after beginning this project, the late Lawrence Adams, a former principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada and co-founder of DCD, introduced me to Rhonda Ryman who was working on creating DanceForms, the dance-based extension of Life Forms computer animation software. I chose to illustrate the book with the computer-generated dancer because I believed that it had the potential to most effectively enhance the word descriptions of the exercises. Rhonda and I spent several years creating a specific palette that most accurately represented Betty's interpretation of the ballet positions.
The barre should never last more than thirty-five minutes and slower more controlled exercises should be alternated with speedier lighter ones. It should be simple and not choreographed so that students can concentrate on executing the steps correctly and not so much on the order of the exercises. I frequently added four bars of music to turn to the other side for continuity, stamina and to save time.
Miss Oliphant's teaching style can be hard to describe. Although she was incredibly persistent and demanding, there was also a softer, gentler side to her manner. She always demonstrated with her arms floating in space as though suspended in the air. When someone didn't do what she wanted or forgot a correction Miss Oliphant pulled herself up tall and, looking down her nose, would simply say, "Didn't I just tell you not to do that?"
I tried not to overload students with too much information. We teachers have a tendency to talk too much and students are often overwhelmed by the number of corrections. I always had to monitor myself to avoid this tendency. My own particular theory was that students could only absorb three individual corrections, two major and one minor in a class.
I feel it is of paramount importance to ensure that Betty Oliphant's extraordinary gift for teaching is recorded and passed on to present and future generations of dance artists. These classes are as beneficial to the training of today's dancers as they were during her long teaching career.
After students joined a company I never commented on their dancing unless I could say how much I had enjoyed their performance. I thought that it became the company's business to look after them, not mine. I think that I was very good at giving students up. When they left the school I felt that I no longer played a part in their development. However, I loved watching all of them and my biggest thrill was seeing a pupil do his or her first performance in a major role.